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Epilogue by Carol M. Quinn


Carol M. Quinn’s “Epilogue” is one of three winners of the 2019 CRAFT Flash Fiction Contest, judged by Benjamin Percy.


Sometimes the world makes you sick. You read the headlines, you log on to social media, you power on the TV, and feel like your blood is thickening with poison and a scar is worming across your heart. How do you respond—on a daily, personal level—to monstrous events beyond your control? Earthquakes topple cities. Bombs rip apart countries. Leaders threaten democracies. Viruses spread. Waters poison. Ice caps melt. Towers fall. Maybe you fight back. Or maybe you escape with laughter or drink or drugs or sex or sport. How do you carry on as a person when the world seems in ruins? It’s a question we face daily, and this story explores it with lyrical beauty.
Benjamin Percy


 

They staggered, stunned, into the fall, she and Teddy making giant vats of pasta and vegetarian burrito dinners to feed twenty-five, inviting home everyone they knew to eat, to drink, to stay over, please, we have a futon and warm, inviting beds. Sometimes they changed the sheets. Occasionally there were drugs. Every night a party, plastic cups with first names and last initials scrawled in permanent marker crowding the table, the countertop, the arms of the futon, the bathroom sink. So many parties. A week of parties, a month of parties. Parties that wanted to be last week’s parties, last month’s, last year’s; The Strokes and Weezer and the Hedwig soundtrack on the CD player, a towel at the foot of the door to contain the pot, the noise, the desperation. Disorienting, to stand on the roof and smoke cigarettes after midnight, at first in T-shirts, later in hoodies and then jackets and scarves, gloves with the fingers cut off, staring resolutely only to the right and the still-shining Empire State Building, lighted now at all hours to provide such things as hope and inspiration to the men and women a few blocks away who were doing what, exactly? digging? sorting? tagging? “It might be time to quit smoking,” Teddy ventured, and Jane gestured with her cigarette. “This,” she said, “is cleaner and safer and healthier than that.” That, the air, the wind, the particles. The streets, the people, the cars, the buildings were no longer covered in that thick layer, but, “The question is,” Teddy said, “matter, energy being neither created nor destroyed, where did it go?” “We are film majors,” Jane answered. “Stop.”

Late winter and the parties did stop. Cold, dark, inward, solitary, correct. They fixed each other vodka and cranberry juice in leftover red plastic cups as congratulations for getting through a half day of classes, for riding the subway uptown and then back down, for not weeping, or for weeping only a little bit, for hearing a truck backfire, for being, well, yes actually, a little thirsty, now that you mention it. New Year’s Day, she offered $10 to a woman sitting on a plastic bucket on Canal Street for two turtles, bottlecap-tiny, mottled brown and green, the smallest, the weakest—delusions of rescue—and so she shouldn’t have been so surprised, Teddy said, when a week later one, followed swiftly by his brother, succumbed. To what, she didn’t know, and spoke darkly about air, atmosphere, poison invisible, inevitable, hanging over the city. Teddy emptied the turtle house down the drain, released the bodies down the garbage chute. He handed her a tissue and made her a drink. No more cooking. They ate brie, thick hunks spread on Carr’s water crackers, and Entenmann’s chocolate-glazed donuts, and apples dipped in peanut butter, and blueberry bagels from the deli next door, sucking the melted butter out between their teeth and shivering against the wind that swirled up who knew what—they knew what—outside their windows.

Spring in stops and starts, tender Saturdays and yearning Wednesdays. Damp hanging in sidewalk cracks, snaking around cobblestones, settling into old bricks and creaky joints and cold noses. Nevertheless it was time, Teddy announced, for the winter coat wearing to stop. His hair a wild mess of curls, tentacles gently waving. Her Army surplus jacket slumped over the armchair, three sizes too big and Rorschached with dried coffee. “Jane,” he continued. “We are reaching the season of flip-flops. Of T-shirts and, for you, the season of the skirt. Bare legs. Beers on terraces. Sangria on the roof.” He cracked the windows open and she shivered them closed. “It is still,” she said, “indoor sweater weather,” she herself wrapped in a giant pea-soup cardigan, pockets a fire hazard of matches and tissue pieces, dimes and bitten-down pencil nubs. Outside, the particles were no longer but could not possibly have simply disappeared, she had always agreed with Teddy on that point, but the question then remained, where did they go? Teddy standing in the middle of the room, between Jane and their silent TV, stretching his arms up over his head. “What we need,” he said, “is a physics major.”

But even a physics major, Jane thinks, could not stop the summer. She breathes the air, park walks at lunch. Licks chocolate soft-serve off her wrist, crushes the sticky wafer cone between her teeth. Watches stockbrokers slinging suit coats over shoulders. Jugglers at the fountain. Babies. Bubbles. She sits in the grass. Feels the sun, hot, hotter. Summer is strawberries and sangria and sunflowers, Teddy pulling rabbits from his hat and releasing butterflies from his upturned palms, and it will not work, it cannot work, because she cannot let it, because she has yet to pay. For laughing her way up the stairs that morning. For noticing the pigeons swooping and diving, their gray backs silver in the sunlight that was then still reflected off the sides of the buildings, for noticing and for finding them pretty. For all the cigarettes of the day, packs of them, for every breath of her own smoke and the boundaries it delineated. For the moments she’d turned away, hunching her shoulders and cupping her hands to light a match. For finally not turning away, for needing to see, straining to see. For watching. For watching, but not close enough. Because what, finally, had happened? Everything was there and then everything wasn’t, and what did it mean and where did they go? She takes a deep breath, feels ash in her throat. She waits for an answer. How much longer? She waits for years. She’s waiting still.

 


CAROL M. QUINN’s fiction has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Border Crossing, Painted Bride Quarterly, Joyland, Chicago Quarterly Review, and pacificREVIEW. She holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and often teaches first-year writing, most recently at Michigan State University. A native of Queens, New York, she lives in Michigan with her husband and sons.

 


Our Twitter micro-interview with Carol M. Quinn:

 

 

Author’s Note

“Epilogue” began more than a decade ago. I sat down intending to write about Teddy and Jane, but instead produced a two-page wall of text describing my own memories and impressions of living in lower Manhattan in the year after 9/11. I was a college sophomore at the time, and, together with friends, watched the attack on the World Trade Center from a dorm room balcony.

I revisited the piece a few years later, this time with enough distance to filter my own experiences through the lens of the characters. The events of the story haven’t changed much since that early draft, but I tinkered with the language—sentence by sentence, word by word—for a very long time. I wanted the language to reflect the characters’ disorientation as they attempted to understand an experience that was both intensely personally horrifying and also a national tragedy.

“Epilogue” became a piece I would turn to in between working on other projects, make a few changes, save, and put away. For a long time (years), the biggest problem was the ending; I tried concluding the piece in so many different ways, but nothing I tried felt authentic.

There’s no great turning point here, just an eventual realization: that the ending was giving me so much trouble because there is no ending. The deaths on 9/11 don’t make sense. They never have. They never will. Jane can never find a resolution; she just lives with the lack of it. That realization led me to the final few sentences, and those sentences, at long last, felt like an honest way to close the piece.

And yet, and yet. Even honesty can be slippery. I finished this piece in August 2019. Now it is April 2020, and the world is stumbling through a new tragedy, one both slower moving and wider spread than 9/11. Jane’s ending still feels honest to me, but it also feels very much of the time before COVID-19. If I were to write an ending for Jane today, I imagine that she’d be wrestling with a different kind of truth: that we never do know what’s going to happen next, and that uncertainty can be terrifying. But if we sit with it for a while, hold it up to the light at just the right angle, maybe there can be some hope in it, too.

 


CAROL M. QUINN’s fiction has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Border Crossing, Painted Bride Quarterly, Joyland, Chicago Quarterly Review, and pacificREVIEW. She holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and often teaches first-year writing, most recently at Michigan State University. A native of Queens, New York, she lives in Michigan with her husband and sons.